What Makes a Children’s Book for Children?

There’s a recent trend of adults reading children’s literature. There are obligatory JK Rowling and Tolkien references to be made here, but the trend doesn’t end there.

Forest Born (Books of Bayern)
The books of Bayern are not such a series judging based on my reading of Forrest Born. You, the adult reader, probably aren’t going to be drawn to read and re-read them.

This isn’t to say that the books don’t serve a valuable role. Shannon Hale writes complicated female characters. They have conflicting goals they must struggle with. They interact with other women who each have distinct personalities. The superheroes are all women. If there is a weakness in character development, it lies wholly with the men. Not a single one sparks interest. Their names offer more individuality to them than their actual behavior. They act and behave like men, but they are all interchangeable. This sounds like a critique, but on the whole we could use more books like this and Hale performs a valuable service in providing them.

The story has conflicts. There are stakes. They are life and death. In fact, these stakes are probably higher than typical stakes in adult fiction. But what then makes this a work for children?

I haven’t quite figured that out. It certainly has something to do with the emotional development of the characters. Our heroine faces external dangers, but ultimately they are tamed by being true and honest to herself. And the theme of the book, which it states explicitly in at least one passage is about being true and honest to oneself. There is something about being so explicit about one’s meaning that damns a book to gain an audience among children rather than adults.

Additionally, that very message seems to be tailored for middle and high school students. Adult books can be about self-discovery certainly, but seemingly every book for this age group is. And struggling to overcome one’s own qualms seems to be something we will associate with children’s fiction rather than what is written for adults.forest girl photo


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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28 thoughts on “What Makes a Children’s Book for Children?

  1. I’ve read most of Heinlein’s children’s books and enjoyed them. Of course, I enjoyed all his books, to one degree or another. It would have been interesting reading them when I was a kid.

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  2. I would guess that what makes a work a children’s work is something like “theme”.

    The plot and characters can be complex in a work for children, but the theme would be simple. Something like “it is important to stand up to bullies” or “you need to follow your dreams” would be children’s work themes but “hey, sometimes you have to give up everything you care about in order to fit into society” would be an adult theme.

    “I thought you told me that I needed to follow my dreams!”
    “Yeah, well, welcome to adulthood, kid.”

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    • This is pretty solid starting-point; I’d add language and plot mechanics that are appropriately simple/complex depending upon age. Most children’s books are “worldview” inculturation books. We can fight as much as we want about the worldview, if we desire.

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      • Your language point is a good one. The separation between children’s literature and adult literature is more than plot and theme. Books for children will tend to use simpler language and will definitely not play with language that much. Most adult literature isn’t that innovative in its use of language either but a lot authors do try to use more complex language and sometimes innovate with it.

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            • Lee,
              Still much, much funnier than nicknaming someone “Ass Cancer”
              (He shows up in Bojack as Herb Kazzaz).

              [That has got to be the WORST nickname ever. Props if you know who it’s referring to]

              … I’m not sure if “It’s Descriptive!” makes it better or worse…

              Makes Chibtard sound like a NICE Handle

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            • So are you writing me into the Alt-right sphere?

              I don’t think you’re fighting alt-rightism very well if you are. I think you might even be expanding Alt-rightism into everyday life. Is that your goal?

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      • Yeah, one of the things I thought about while driving to work was Ulysses. One of the most adult books ever.

        And thinking about Ulysses, I thought about stuff like The Iliad and The Odyssey and how, when I was a kid, I read children’s versions of those… and how different (or not different) those Bowdlerized stories were from the “adult” ones. The “Calypso” section reads differently. Scylla and Charybdis pretty much unchanged.

        Which is making me realize that Bowdlerizing something is not turning an adult work into a kid-friendly work. It’s just changing the word “damned” to “crimson”.

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        • Well, then there is “Moby Dick.” The versions for kids pull out the exciting bits and package these as an adventure novel. The rest of the book–which is to say the vast bulk of it–is ignored. This makes for something of a shock when a reader picks up the real version for the first time.

          See also the Book of Jonah. What is it about whales? Here’s a hint: Jonah isn’t about a whale. No, I’m not talking about what “leviathan” actually is. It isn’t about that, either. For anyone who is mystified by the suggestion that the book is about something else entirely, I encourage you to sit down and read it from beginning to end in a reasonably modern translation. It will take you about fifteen minutes. It is one of my favorite books of the Bible, even without being about a whale.

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          • Yeah, maybe that’s another distinction. “Can this book be made into a movie without changing it? Then it’s a children’s book.”

            If someone asked me what Moby Dick, the book, was about, I’d have to hrm and hem and haw for a bit before talking about “everything, kinda… how we’re, like, in a circle. We’re, like, all connected. More like a sphere. Everything touches everything.”

            “What was the movie about?”
            “They gave Ahab to a British guy who chewed scenery for two hours.”

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                  • Well, I think that there is a distinction being made in the original post.

                    When Vikram talks about books for children, he’s specifically thinking “Baby Boomers and After” kinda kiddo books and not going back to “what stories were told to the children of the Hun in the blackest forests prior to the discovery of electricity?”

                    Goldielocks getting mauled by the three bears is a childrens’ story. Some of the other ones involving (laundry list of horrible things) in the collected fairy tales are also childrens’ stories.

                    But I think we’re not talking about what *REALLY* happened to The Willful Child.

                    We’re talking about what makes a childrens’ story in today’s cultural context.

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                    • Jay,
                      This is America. We rate Children’s Stories R in America.
                      (See Stand by Me, a movie where the protagonists would not legally be allowed to watch the film).

                      You can do death in children’s works, even children attempting suicide.

                      What you can’t do, and have people think Still A Kid’s Book, is have it be grim.

                      People want a sort of idyllic “good things happen eventually” (Plus… no drugs! Drugs are Not for Kids, and not for Kids Books either)

                      [The Huns, by the way, hated the dark forests, the bears there liked giving hugs… It was the Muscovites who fled the Huns, who lived in the deep dark forests]

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  3. I think the answer of what makes children’s media for children is very cultural dependent among other things. Anybody with even a passing familiarity with manga and anime knows that Japanese parents are willing to allow their kids to be exposed to things that would cause a moral panic in the United States. A lot of anime aimed at teens and young adults outside of Japan was aimed at the elementary school and middle school set in Japan. There can be at least semi-realistic violence, in that it has consequences, morality, and scatological and sexual humor and nobody would react that much.

    Non-Japanese parents, and this covers everybody from the Western world and non-European cultures, tend to want their children’s media to not be as mature as children’s anime. The French come closest to Japanese parents based on casual observation but still balk at the amount of realistic violence and tend to edit that when they air anime on French television. Books for children tend to be able to get away with a lot more violence and sexuality than comic books, tv shows, and movies. Mainly because you have to imagine everything yourself I guess.

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    • Lee,
      I think a book for children (below age 9 or so), has no real good reason for including anything about sexuality. Kids won’t like it, they won’t understand it, and they won’t be interested in it.

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  4. The Hobbit was written for children. Lord of the Rings was not, any more than its sources (the Norse and Germanic myths) or Wagner’s Ring cycle (same sources) were.

    Admittedly, the Peter Jackson movies were made for 12-year-olds.

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  5. Well, let’s see. A children’s book is short, and often has a child as a protagonist.
    Mutilations, Forcible rape, Death of main character (Thanks, Clever Hans!)… it’s All Okay!

    Seriously, they read The Little Match Girl to children.

    And yeah, there’s a bit fewer 4-5 syllable words in english.

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  6. I think that is on the right track with the comment about the differences in themes. And there is a structural difference that corresponds to this, as well. In books and movies, etc. for children and young adults, the theme plays out within a carefully structured moral universe of which the protagonist is the center.

    Most everything that happens, does so for the purpose of supporting the main character(s)’ development. If there is a bully in children’s/young adult book, chances are that bully is there to give the main character(s) a chance to stand up to the bully. If there is a riddle or a puzzle, it’s there for the main character(s) to develop their problem solving skills. So forth and so on. Also, generally, with children’s/YA books, there is an element of the power to succeed was always in you, you just had to discover it. In a word, these works are solipsistic. This makes some sense, as young people tend to learn about the world largely in relation to themselves.

    These same themes play out in adult literature, but the moral universe is generally much larger, the themes more complex, and generally, the characters in adult literature tend to find themselves involved in plots that don’t explicitly revolve around them. Adult literature is often about coming to terms with the wider world, or coming to terms with the wider world’s effect on you. It is worth noting that this kind of YA, protagonist-centered moral universe is more and more becoming a part of books and movies marketed to adults. And that is probably both a cause and an effect of the general solipsism that pervades our contemporary world.

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    • I’d say that distinction works in one direction but not so much the other – that is, a plot that is firmly non-solipsistic fairly strongly distinguishes works written for adults, but a plot that is solipsistic doesn’t particularly distinguish works written for children.

      I don’t know that this is necessarily a time-bound thing – “our contemporary world” might not be so much the issue, as “the constant churn of works destined not to be classics for the ages”. There have perhaps always been books written for adults with the power to succeed was always in you, you just had to discover it plots – they’ve just mostly been kinda disposable, best sellers for a year or so, and a generation later nobody’s heard of it.

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